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Must Good Presidents Be Ex-Governors?

Yesterday at the end of an interview with Chuck Todd on MSNBC’s Daily Rundown, House Majority Whip Rep. Kevin McCarthy threw in an interesting kicker to his criticism of President Obama’s handling of budget issues and his refusal to negotiate with the GOP:

This is why this system is not working. I’m a firm believer that I don’t think anybody should become president if they haven’t been a governor first. A governor picks a cabinet, has to work with both sides, can’t print more money, has to have a balanced budget. The challenge in Washington is the ability to work together.

Is he right? We’ll leave aside the question of whether he was expressing tacit support for the GOP governors in the conversation for 2016 like Chris Christie, Scott Walker, or Bobby Jindal and opposition to senators like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz and limit our discussion to one about the past.

Democrats will dispute McCarthy’s characterization of President Obama as a dysfunctional leader unused to the business of running a government, but an objective look at this administration (especially in the wake of the president’s confession that he didn’t know what was happening with ObamaCare before the rollout fiasco began just as he claimed to first learn of the IRS scandal from the newspapers and about Benghazi after it was all over) gives weight to McCarthy’s point of view. Government is now more complicated than ever, and keeping the moving parts from pulling apart while also managing the political system is essential to being an effective president. But it’s not clear that history proves McCarthy’s point. While administrative experience is important, not all good presidents have had it. And not all former governors to serve in the White House have been great presidents.

Of the 43 men who have served as president, 21 of them have been governors–though if we limit that to governors of states (Andrew Jackson was military governor of Florida before it became a state and William Howard Taft ruled the Philippines and Cuba as governor when they were possessions of the United States) that number goes down to 19. That list includes some that many historians consider great or near great. Among those consensus picks are Franklin Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt (though his time as governor of New York was brief), and Thomas Jefferson (whose service as governor of Virginia during the Revolutionary War is chiefly remembered for his famous skedaddle on horseback when the British invaded the state).

But if we expand our list to more recent presidents—about whom opinion is still influenced by partisan loyalties—you must include Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. I believe Reagan ranks among the unquestionably great. However, I think Clinton a skilled politician who benefited from the good luck of serving during a period of peace and prosperity that had little to do with his efforts. But let’s include him among the positives for argument’s sake. Other former governors whose service adds strength to McCarthy’s argument are Calvin Coolidge (whose stock has justifiably gone up in recent years as the hangover from the New Deal’s condemnation of the 1920s wore off), William McKinley, James Polk, and James Monroe.

But some former governors undermine McCarthy’s point. The most prominent example of a terrible president with executive experience on the state level is, of course, Jimmy Carter. But Andrew Johnson (a former governor of Tennessee who may well have merited his impeachment at the hands of his Radical Republican foes in Congress) gives the peanut farmer a run for his money in that category.

Opinion may be split about two other former governors.

George W. Bush left office among the most reviled presidents in memory, but I would contend that history will be kinder to him than his contemporaries even if no one will ever consider him great.

Many students of history consider Woodrow Wilson great or near great, but I dissent from that view. Indeed, the collapse of his second term (even before his illness rendered him helpless and left his wife more or less in charge of the country) illustrates how a former governor failed to demonstrate exactly those skills that McCarthy claims are essential: the ability to work with members of the opposition.

But the list of non-governors to serve as president is just as instructive.

Our two greatest presidents never ran a state before taking office: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Perhaps leading the Continental Army constitutes executive experience for Washington, but Lincoln never was charge of anything bigger than his law office before assuming the presidency at the most crucial point in our history.

Other non-governors to add luster to their side of their ledger are Dwight Eisenhower (though his post as military leader of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe during World War Two was probably more a test of his political and diplomatic talent than his military acumen) and Harry Truman.

That said, the roster of really bad presidents is thick with non-governors. That includes 19thcentury duds like Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and perhaps the worst of all, James Buchanan along with U.S. Grant, who must be considered one of the runners-up in that category. But we must also include 20thcentury disasters such as Warren Harding, Herbert Hoover (unjustly blamed for the Depression but still a failure), and Richard Nixon. I would add Barack Obama to this list but as bad as his conduct of policy at home and abroad has been, he does have three more years to change my opinion … or make it worse.

Others who never ran a state fall somewhere in the middle: George H.W. Bush, Gerald Ford, Lyndon Johnson (Vietnam cancels out his domestic achievements), John Kennedy (I know we’re commemorating the 50th anniversary of this death this month but despite the attempt of some conservatives to claim him as one of their own and the efforts of liberals to keep him as one of their patron saints, nothing he did in his less than three years in office makes him great or damns him as one of the worst, unless you’re counting personal conduct).

Thus, the verdict here must be considered inconclusive.

I’ll concede that in the 21stcentury as government has grown to a size our Founders could not have imagined, perhaps that means executive experience means more today than it has in the past. But what this exercise should teach us is that presidential greatness depends more on leadership skills and moral authority than it does on a resume. As I look at the list of potential contenders in 2016, perhaps the current and former governors there look more credible to me than the Senate loudmouths. But none of them are guaranteed to be able to duplicate their success in statehouses once they sit in the Oval Office. Nor can we know for sure that a senator is not qualified to do so, though if I had to bet on it, I’d guess Cruz and Paul wouldn’t be any more successful in the unlikely event of their being elected than Obama has been.

What we need is a leader, whether he comes from a statehouse, Congress, or private life. We can only hope that Divine Providence and the will of the voters provide us with one.

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